Jewish Rights in the Soviet Union
As the Communist Parties throughout Eastern Europe lost power throughout the fall of 1989, the issue of the treatment of minorities inside those countries gained increased prominence. The ongoing plight of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria and the tensions among the nationalities of Yugoslavia were two areas of international concern. The Soviet Union faced its own minority issues with the political demonstrations in the Republic nations, including in Lithuania and Georgia. Included among these ethnic tensions was the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, who had faced persistent difficulties throughout Soviet history, beginning with freedom of religion and including their attempts to emigrate. In the spring of 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain addressed the current treatment of the Jews in the Soviet Union at the meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had been pursuing the cause of Jewish rights in the Soviet Union since the signing of the Helsinki Declaration in 1975.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Discusses Jewish Rights in the Soviet Union
18 February 1990
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Board of Deputies, Ladies and
Gentlemen. It is a great pleasure and honour to be invited to
address you this morning.
Not very long ago we celebrated the 250th anniversary of one of the
great landmarks and institutions of this country—Number 10
Downing Street. The Board of Deputies is hard on our heels. This
year is your 230th anniversary. You were set up with a rather
temporary purpose, as a Committee to convey loyal greetings to
King George III on his accession to the Throne in 1760. But like
many temporary bodies, you lasted, and as the Jewish community
has grown from 8,000 then to over 300,000 now so your role has
You give an example in another way. You count seventy-nine
among your number, that is more than twice the proportion in the
House of Commons, although we do our best to make our presence
The contribution of the Jewish community to our national life has
been quite outstanding, whether in the sciences, the arts, business,
or the professions. You have also been very active in political life, in
particular in my own constituency—Finchley—where I am very
pleased to note that the majority there seem to hold my views on
very many things.
I would like to pay a particular tribute to the [ Immanuel Jakobovits]
Chief Rabbi. He is absolutely marvellous and always speaks up
fearlessly on everything. He has had a very great influence on many
issues and it was a great joy when he agreed to sit in the House of
Lords. We all owe a lot to him, not just the Jewish community but
the country as a whole.
That leads me to a very important point which once again brings in
King George III, with whom your organisation started. You will recall
that he and his family were German by origin, but in his first speech
from the Throne he said this: "Born and educated in this country, I
glory in the name of Britain." That is just as true of you, the Jewish
community of this country. You observe your religion and your
customs but you are also British, as loyal, as patriotic, as much a
part of our national life and traditions as any other citizen in this
You see it, for instance, in the marvellous pride and bearing of
Jewish ex-Servicemen at Cenotaph time on Remembrance Sunday
and the following one and you see it in countless other ways. In
comparison with your numbers, and this of course has been true in
many other countries as well, your contribution has been truly
What pleases me most is that the qualities which we so admire in
Jewish people—the high achievement, the generosity, the sense of
community and of helping each other—are those which we have
begun to recreate in this country.
More and more people are taking opportunities, welcoming
responsibility, showing initiative and enterprise, showing that the
basic spirit of the British only needed the right stimulus, the right
encouragement, to release it once more.
In one field more than any other your example has been an
inspiration and that is in the Jewish duty of "gemilat hasadim" or
charitable concern. Throughout its history, the Board of Deputies
has supported and encouraged British Jewry's example of voluntary
effort for the welfare of our community.
The tradition goes well back into the 19th Century with the great
networks of Jewish charitable schools, benevolent and friendly
societies, relief work, help for new immigrants, and many other
activities. That compassion is just as real today with the work of the
Jewish Care Agency under its superb President, David Young.
But your activities go much wider than the Jewish community itself
and it is here that you have been both an example and an influence.
It will not surprise you if I refer to what everyone knows is one of
my favourite companies—Marks and Spencer—which gave over £4
million to the voluntary sector last year. As a proportion of pre-tax
profits, that is four times the corporate average. We want more
Marks and Spencers.
Moreover, the Jewish tradition understands first, the importance of
creating wealth through one's own efforts and, second, the
importance of sharing one's wealth with others, the recognition that
with wealth comes responsibility.
What I find very encouraging is that your example is being much
more widely followed. You have only to look at the massive increase
in charitable giving over the past ten years. Public donations to
charities have doubled in real terms since 1979 to £900 million. We
are encouraging this trend through tax and other incentives to
donors. Indeed the total cost of tax relief for charitable giving in
terms of revenues foregone is now about £500 million a year. That
is a measure of our wish to encourage voluntary giving.
I would like, if I may, to turn now to a matter to which you referred,
Mr. Chairman, that I know is of great concern to you and to the
whole Jewish community in Britain and indeed to us all—the issue of
alleged Nazi war criminals living in this country.
When the allegations that such people were living in Britain were
first made some three years ago, I was naturally very concerned,
like most people. I had assumed that the screening procedures
applied to those who came to this country from Europe after the
end of the last War had been sufficient to ensure that anyone who
might have committed such crimes did not come to Britain.
The thought that people who had committed the most terrible of
atrocities might have been living amongst us, unpunished, for fifty
years is a shocking one. Because of this we set up the War Crimes
Inquiry. It was a means of establishing whether the allegations had
any substance and, if so, of considering what steps, if any, needed
to be taken to bring the matter before the Courts.
A very thorough report was produced by Sir Thomas Hetherington
and Mr William Chalmers. The report found evidence to suggest
that suspected war criminals were living in Britain and it
recommended that the Law should be changed to allow such
suspects to be prosecuted in this country.
The reason for this is that under the Law, as it stands at present,
people cannot be tried in this country for offences committed
abroad during the Second World War if they were not British citizens
at the time.
We and the Government were impressed by the force of argument
that led the Inquiry to reach their conclusion. But we felt that we
needed to hear the views of Parliament before going further. This
issue is one that should not and cannot be a party political one.
Debates in both Houses of Parliament took place in December and
both were notable for the quality of contributions that were made,
including in the House of Lords that of the [ Immanuel Jakobovits]
Chief Rabbi. He pointed out, quite rightly, that it is not for us to say
what the Courts should decide in the case which comes before
them. Our only task is to do what we can to ensure that justice can
No vote was taken in the House of Lords but I think it is fair to say
from the debate that the majority of those who spoke were opposed
to changing our law to give our Courts jurisdiction over these
In the House of Commons, by contrast, the majority were in favour
of action along the lines suggested by the Inquiry's report. In a free
vote, the Commons voted by 348 to 123 in favour of taking action.
Personally, I found the Inquiry's arguments persuasive and I
therefore voted for the motion along with the majority in the House.
In the light of the clear expression of opinion in the House of
Commons and of the views expressed in both debates, we are now
considering what form any legislation might take. In reaching our
decision on this, I can assure you that we shall also bear in mind
the many letters which we have received on the subject from the
Jewish community. We are very much aware of the need to decide
on the next steps as soon as possible and the [ David Waddington]
Home Secretary will shortly be making an announcement about our
intentions, which I must not pre-empt today.
Mr. Chairman, another subject to which you referred, the Board of
Deputies has never been an introspective organisation. You have
always taken a very lively interest in world events and in the fate of
Jewish communities in other parts of the world. And in recent years
that has meant particularly the position of Jews in the Soviet
You and your colleagues in the United States, and Canada in
particular, have played a very important part in bringing this issue
to the attention of governments and people everywhere and thus in
achieving the great improvements in the condition of Jews in the
Soviet Union which are taking place.
The National Council for Soviet Jewry, which you set up in 1975,
and the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry have been just two of
the organisations which have been absolutely in the front line of
this great cause. They have bombarded the Government with
letters, both about individual cases and about the broader issues,
and quite right too.
We have done our very best to help and particular credit is due, I
think, to our Embassy in Moscow and to the Soviet Department of
the Foreign Office who have been indefatigable.
But there is no doubt that the improvements we have seen would
not have come about but for Mr. Gorbachev. I have discussed the
matter with him on several occasions and he has always been very
direct with me, which I appreciate. When we last spoke about it in
September he was absolutely clear—there are no more obstacles,
those who want to can go.
Things are very much better with over a hundred synagogues
functioning and emigration at a record level of 70,000 last year.
And all of you who have worked for that result can take great pride
But equally, as you mention Mr. Chairman, the problem is not yet
finally resolved. Whether because of obstacles in the bureaucracy,
or for whatever reason, there are still Jews wrongfully imprisoned,
there are still long-term Refusniks who are not allowed to leave the
country, the draft Emigration Law which we have seen seems still
too restrictive. There are worrying signs, to which you referred, of
anti-Semitic propaganda being put out by extremist organisations
which have nothing to do with the Soviet government. Indeed, it is
entirely contrary to the spirit of perestroika.
So we shall continue to make our views and concerns known to the
Soviet authorities. We shall repeat that we are very grateful for
everything that has been done so far. But we cannot rest until all
injustices are put right.
The Soviet authorities well know that we have yet to make up our
minds about attending the Human Rights Conference in Moscow
next year and that we expect the undoubted progress in their
human rights record to be sustained.
And that leads me on naturally to say a word about wider
developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The whole
European scene has changed beyond recognition in the last year,
change for the better. Of course that has brought forward new
problems but we shall have to overcome them.
But let us first of all allow ourselves to feel glad about what has
happened, glad about what has happened. It is the essence of the
human spirit renewing and demonstrating that it is unbeatable, that
it is unquenchable.
And you know it is not so long ago that communism was seen as
the way of the future, the irresistible force which would rule the
world. Now it lies in ruins, a discredited and bankrupt system, while
democracy and the market economy are gaining ground
everywhere. We have seen revolutions, for the most part peaceful,
sweep through the countries of Eastern Europe, ending the
Communist Party's monopoly of power.
And now the Soviet Union is about to take the historic step of
accepting a multi-party system. At the same time, the Soviet Union
has made substantial unilateral reductions in its forces and the
negotiations in Vienna on reducing conventional forces in Europe
promise further reductions on both sides, though the Warsaw Pact
will have to make greater reductions than NATO—nearly 400,000
Soviet troops as against about 100,000 United States troops.
It is likely that Soviet forces will withdraw altogether from some
Eastern European countries. The Soviet Union's capacity to mount a
surprise attack against Western Europe, which has been one of our
great fears for more than forty years, will thus be dramatically
All this is good news and it represents a success for the West, for
NATO, for the resolve and determination of its individual members.
We should recognise too how much it owes to the vision and
courage of Mr. Gorbachev, but above all, it is a triumph for our
ideas of democracy, for the rule of law, for the market economy and
the free institutions which we have built upon them. It is also a
triumph for our resolve always to defend the freedom and justice
which are essential to our way of life.
It becomes even more important to maintain the institutions in the
new situation which we now face. At best, we are bound to enter a
period of great uncertainty. Democracy will take time to put down
its roots in Eastern Europe. We are already seeing a renewal of
disputes and problems between nationalities, which is reminiscent
of the days between the First World War, and we remember how
other countries can all too easily be dragged into such disputes.
There is a lot of talk in the West about a peace dividend. Our real
dividend is the failure of the communist system and the reduction
of the military threat. We should not squander it by allowing the
very institutions, above all NATO, which have kept us secure to be
undermined. Or by dismantling our defence, when the Soviet Union
continues to have vast military capabilities. If we had had
something equivalent to NATO in the 1930s, we would never have
had a Second World War. We shall always have to keep adequate
defences because you never know where the new threat might come
One has to bear in mind that twelve countries outside NATO and the
Warsaw Pact already have ballistic missiles and many more than
now could be in a position to acquire nuclear weapons by the end of
Hopefully there will be an opportunity to make some reductions in
our forces as part of balanced reductions by both NATO and the
Warsaw Pact. But we shall not do anything which would put our
defence and our security at risk, nor to weaken our capability to
undertake out-of-area tasks. That means we shall continue to need
our independent nuclear deterrent as well as strong and well
equipped conventional forces and no-one should doubt our
determination on that score.
One aspect of these developments to which you again referred, Mr
Chairman, it seems as if you almost knew what I would say, one
aspect of these developments, which is of particular concern to this
audience, is German unification. I say unification rather than
reunification because we are not talking of Germany with its 1937
borders, but of the coming together of the existing Federal Republic
and of the GDR.
There is no doubt that this coming together of the two parts of
Germany is going to happen. The Western Allies have always
supported the principle of unification, provided that it comes about
as a result of the freely expressed choice of the people of the two
German States. But it is understandable that, for some, bitter
memories of the past should colour their view of the present and
As Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher have themselves
acknowledged, German unification must take into account not only
the feelings of the two German states, but the sensitivities and
interests of others in Europe as well. It must respect existing
Treaties and Agreements, including commitments of the Helsinki
Final Act which recognises existing borders in Europe. It must
respect the rights of the Four Powers in Germany,–after all it is on
the basis of the Four Power rights and responsibilities that the Allies
have preserved West Berlin's freedom for over forty years. Nor must
it make any of us in Eastern or Western Europe or of the Soviet
Union feel less secure. That was the point to which you referred,
that I made in the House.
That means that we want to see Germany remain part of NATO, with
American and other troops stationed there, with some special
arrangements for East Germany to meet the Soviet Union's security
concerns. Indeed, it would be quite reasonable for some Soviet
troops to remain there, at least for a transitional period.
These are major questions and they need to be thought through
and satisfactory answers found. They do not involve Germany and
the Four Powers alone. For instance, we understand and indeed fully
support Poland's wish to see its Western border guaranteed by
Treaty and other neighbouring states will have their particular views
Our aim all along has been to see a framework within which the full
implications of Germany's unification could be properly worked out.
That framework we have now achieved with the agreement at the
Open Skies Conference in Ottawa to start meetings of the Four
Powers and the two Germanies, and I very much welcome that.
In all this we want to ensure that Germany's unification upholds
peace and prosperity in Europe and does not become a new source
of instability. Chancellor Kohl and his colleagues share this aim and
I am sure they will remain staunch supporters of NATO.
Mr Chairman, you would expect me to say something about the
situation in the Middle East. Britain was very much a part of the
creation of the State of Israel. Indeed, that was brought home to me
in a very personal way two or three years ago when that remarkable
lady, Dolly de Rothschild, then well into her nineties, came to a
dinner for the [ Chaim Herzog] President of Israel at Number 10
Downing Street. As she came along the receiving line she stopped
and said, in an entirely natural way: "It is good to see it again, the
last time I was here was in Asquith's time." She was historically
She and her family were also, of course, very much concerned with
the events surrounding the Balfour Declaration. I believe that most
people in this country have a deep and abiding admiration for the
Jewish people and for what they have achieved in Israel. I recall the [
Immanuel Jakobovits] Chief Rabbi's lecture of some years ago in
which he reminded us that the ideals of compassion, equality,
freedom and brotherhood have their origins in the moral pioneering
of ancient Israel, its face, its prophets, its persistence. It is
indeed the Old Testament that taught us respect for the individual,
the concept of human rights, the tradition of unfettered thought,
the rule of law and the idea of progress.
These are the Jewish people's contribution to civilisation, they have
made Israel the remarkable country that we know. There is not and
cannot be any doubt about our admiration for Israel's
achievements, our support for her right to exist within secure
borders and our utter rejection of such total departure from truth as
the United Nations Resolution which sought to equate Zionism with
With so many of the problems which have troubled us around the
world now finding solutions, we are desperately anxious to see
similar progress made to settle the problems of the Middle East.
Israel has made an important proposal for elections in the occupied
territories, but it has to involve the Palestinians. And that means
Israel needs to talk to representatives of the Palestinian people from
inside the occupied territories and from outside. That is the only
way progress is going to be made and a solution found to the tragic
situation in the occupied territories which is so hurtful to Israel's
reputation and standing in the world.
We have always taken the view that land in return for a secure peace
should be the basis for such a solution. I know that the problems
would become worse still if Israel were to find homes for Jews from
the Soviet Union by settling them in the occupied territories.
We have all worked very hard to secure the right for Soviet Jews to
emigrate. It would be a very ironic and unjust reward for all our
efforts if their freedom were to be at the expense of the rights, the
homes and the land of the people of the occupied territories.
We understand Israel's wish for peace with security or, as President
Herzog put it on a visit to London: "Her dream of a day when peace
will come". But it will only be achieved by understanding the needs
and fears of the other side, as well as one's own, and finding ways
in which both can reasonably be satisfied.
There is one last issue which I want to mention before I come to my
conclusion and that is terrorism. Again, we thought in the same
way. No country has suffered more than Israel from terrorism, no
people more than the Jewish people, although we in Britain have
had our share.
I know that the Board of Deputies are in regular contact with the
Home Office and the Police about the security of the Jewish
community and I can assure you that officials and the Police are
available at any time to discuss anxieties which you may have on
the security front.
The Government, for its part, has been resolute in taking action
against international terrorism, whether it be in tracking down
those responsible for the appalling tragedy of Pan Am 103 or by
refusing to deal with governments such as those of Syria and Libya,
which we have reason to believe have given support to
terrorism. We have refused to make concessions to those who take
hostages, even though no day goes by without remembering the
fate of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and other victims of kidnapping
in the Lebanon. But to appease terrorists is to concede victory to
them and to condemn more people to lose their lives. Our refusal to
compromise with terrorism, whether it be in Northern Ireland or the
Middle East, will remain absolute because we believe that in the
long-run this is the only way to defeat it.
Mr Chairman, thank you for the privilege of addressing this
gathering. May I congratulate you on your outstanding and selfless
work as Chairman of the Board of Deputies, as well as Mr Pinner,
ewish people have taught us so much. It is your creed that first
said: "Love thy neighbour as thyself". It is your creed that taught us
that as both individuals and nations we are accountable for our
deeds and that as we have received, so we have an obligation to
give to the community of which we are a part. We owe you, our
Jewish community, a debt of gratitude for your enormous
contribution to our national life and our achievements and we wish
you continued success in your great endeavours and we thank you
for what you have done for our country.
Margaret Thatcher, "Speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews," speech, London Press Centre, London, England, February 19, 1990, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Archive, Thatcher Foundation (accessed May 15, 2008).